Monday, July 10, 2006
Sunday Scribbling - Hotel
Disclaimer - Sorry this post is a bit long. It just so happens that I wrote a paper for a course in college a few years ago about a Portland landmark, the Multnomah Hotel, and the part it played in my youth. I didn't feel like I could really cut any part of it out and really keep the whole of the story and the role this hotel played in my life. If you're up for it, I thank you for taking the time to read it! - K
When do we really grow up? Is it when we cross that magical threshold sanctioned by most governments on our 18th birthday? Or is it before then? The first time we tell a lie? Our first kiss? Maybe it’s the first time we make a big decision in our life without consulting our parents (usually to prove our independence only to show our lack of real knowledge and common sense). I’m beginning to think it happens when we catch ourselves looking back at our lives more often than we look forward. As I start to approach the age that I remember first noticing that adults seemed “old,” I am starting to realize the amazing comfort and satisfaction of memories. In the busy-ness of my life, it’s often my memories, my history, that give moments of calm and keep me grounded to what matters.
If memories are like a journey through one’s history, the Multnomah Hotel is a major landmark in my wanderings through childhood and early adulthood. The impressive building took up an entire city block in downtown Portland. Every day my dad would wait at the bus stop in front of my grade school for the number 55 Tri Met bus to take him to his office. The Multnomah Building, built in 1912 and used as a hotel until 1965, was home to the offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies from 1965 to 1992.On the weekends, we would often pile on the same bus with him and travel downtown to experience the sights and sounds offered by the city. The smells of these special outings are what I remember most. The bitter and smoky smell of the bus’s diesel fuel, the smell of fresh baked bread and hot coffee at the French bakery where my dad would buy me a chocolate chip croissant and the wonderful spicy smells of food cooking at the colorful stalls at the Saturday Market. These trips were always the highlight of my weekend. As well as providing quality time with the family and interesting diversions from our lives in the suburbs, the trips served another purpose. Most weekends our trip included a stop at my dad’s corner office on the third floor of the Multnomah Building to drop off or pick up extra work for the weekend. While I was always anxious to get to our planned destination, the building held a charm and beauty that made the visits an added treat on those weekend journeys.
The most breathtaking sight of the old hotel was the lobby. I remember the tall, square, marble pillars seeming gigantic and wondering how workers ever reached the ceiling to carve the intricate patterns that were gilded in gold. The height of the ceiling made me feel like I was in a royal palace instead of an office building. The lobby stood empty of furnishings like the empty shell of a beautiful dollhouse waiting for antique sofas and plush Windsor chairs to be placed inside. The deep maroon carpet, the intricately carved “MH’s” on the walls and the winding marble staircase hinted at a more glorious past than that of the average office building. I was always reminded of the scene in The Sound of Music when Julie Andrews opens the doors to the ballroom of Captain Von Trap’s home. I felt that kind of awe and amazement each time I stepped through the doors to the lobby–like the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen of Portland-society-past were waltzing around me to the strains of a mysterious orchestra.
Going up the elevators in the old building was always an exercise of faith. In the late seventies the building was beginning to show her age. One day, my dad told me offhandedly that a few people had gotten stuck in one of the elevators. They had only been trapped between floors for a few minutes, but it created a frightening possibility in my young mind. When the elevator would stop at the third floor I would always gratefully step over the threshold onto the solid footing beneath me and breathe a sigh of relief. In later years, I would take the stairs, just to be sure. In contrast to the beauty of the lobby, the corridors on the third floor had been stripped of any of their former hotel finery. The white walls and the florescent lighting always cast a gray light in the hallways. The dividers between each office space were gray as well giving the building a serious and stony air about it. The only artwork on the walls consisted of geological charts, maps and posters. My favorite was a large print diagramming a fiery volcano. It seemed so much more glamorous and exotic with its red and orange lava illustrations compared to the other dull earth tone posters of erosion, rock formation and soil composition. Little did I know that within a few years that my exposure to volcanoes would become much more personal as Mt. St. Helens rumbled to life. The exotic images of fire and lava were replaced with the harsh reality of mud flows and ash and the fact that this volcano in my back yard would demand that my dad spend extra hours at the office. Even as a young girl, I recognized the seriousness of his work. My dad’s job was, “to make sure dams were safe.” That’s what I told my classmates when we had the discussions about our parents’ professions. The awesome presence of the physical building, the old Multnomah Hotel, seemed oddly appropriate for the important work going on inside its walls.
My favorite visit to the Multnomah Building was one Christmas season when I was 12 years old. Christmas break did not hold much promise that year. My best friend Suzette had left on a plane to visit her grandmother in Arkansas. My other best friend, Jenny, had a houseful of rowdy cousins that were annoying pests and I chose to avoid the crazed atmosphere. Listening to music and watching TV grew boring after the first few rainy days of Christmas break. Two days before Christmas my dad suggested that I ride the bus downtown to meet him for lunch. I eagerly accepted the invitation looking forward to getting out of the house for a while. Besides spending time together and showing me off to his co-workers, my dad’s motivation for spending the afternoon together was to have my help in shopping for a gift for my mom. He always needed help picking out her gifts. Even last year, 20 years later, he showed up on my doorstep two days before Christmas asking me to go shopping with him. I was an experienced bus rider and lived in a much safer world for the average twelve year old than the one my daughter will live in. I set out on my journey from the grade school lot to his office. Feeling very grown up with my purse, my dark wool coat, hat and gloves I enjoyed the independence that comes from knowing that for a brief time, I was on my own in the “big city.” As I walked the three blocks from the downtown bus stop to my dad’s office I couldn’t wait to get to the brightly lit shops to view the Christmas decorations and the treasures they had for sale. My bravery and independence were soon tested as a tall thin man with scruff on his face and a worn dark coat over his shoulders approached me. Oh no, oh no. I quickly looked down at the sidewalk as I had seen other adults do on our trips downtown. I tried to hurry past but he weaved his way right in front of me. Looking up at what I was sure would be a desperate mugger I clutched my adolescent purse a little more tightly. With slumped shoulders and tired, red-rimmed pleading eyes he asked the dreaded question, “Could you spare some change, Miss?” At that moment all the bravery and independence I felt seeped out through my loafers and into the cold gray pavement. It’s the season of giving. I should give. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t give them money they’ll just use it to buy liquor. But he looks hungry. And cold. “I’m s–s–sorry,” I stammered in my twelve-year-old-voice, and I forced the frozen feet in my brown loafers to move quickly to the familiar outline of the Multnomah Building. When I reached the doors to the lobby, my heart was still furiously pounding under my thick wool coat. The warmth of the lobby air made my red, flushed cheeks tingle to the point right before pain. I stood for a few moments in the lobby catching my breath and waiting for my knees to stop shaking. My first trip alone downtown was not sheltered from the experience of hunger and homelessness. To this day I remember the warmth and joy of the day being nibbled at by feelings of guilt and shame as I enjoyed a nice lunch with my dad in the warm coffee shop at the Multnomah Building.
Some of the best memories of the old hotel are one of Rose Parades. Every year at festival time, I would excitedly count down the days till the Grand Rose Parade. No need for us to camp out on damp sidewalks or risk sunburns in the heat of an early June summer. The perfect viewing spot was looking out my dad’s third floor window. Though supposedly “painted shut” for safety, the sash easily rose at my father’s tugs. A perfectly climate controlled seat in the always questionable June weather. The beauty of the floral floats and the rose covered horses was a magnificent sight. It was an awesome adventure each year to see how many horsemen, horsewomen, grand marshals and princesses we could coax to wave to us on our third floor perch. Success was always easily measured because you knew they were waving at you and no one else in the crowd. Afterwards we would finish the day with a walk down to the waterfront for a few rides and fun-center goodies.
As I grew older and entered my high school years, it was no longer cool to go the parade with mom and dad. I opted instead to go with my girlfriends and watch the parade from the street. As we drove around looking for post-parade parking to head to the carnival rides of the fun-center, I directed my friend to a lot near my dad’s office building. Stopped at a traffic light I puffed away on my contraband cigarette and laughed with my friends. Suddenly, above the noise of the radio I was surprised to hear a familiar voice calling my name. “Kim! KIM!” it shouted. It was my mother sitting on the curb across the street from where we were parked. “Jeez!” I uttered through clenched teeth as I threw my cigarette into the ashtray of Vena’s car and slammed it shut. Mom walked up to the window of the car and proceeded to direct us around the block to a parking lot that still had some open spots. After a quick, “When will you be home today . . .” discussion, we were off, the smoke starting to pour from below the radio as I had forgotten to extinguish the cigarette when I threw it in the ashtray. I quickly grabbed it out and doused it in my freshly opened Diet Coke. So much for being cool. Because of this experience and others I decided the fear of getting caught smoking far outweighed any pleasure I got from it. All this happened in the shadow of the stately Multnomah Hotel.
Eventually, the US Army Corps of Engineers outgrew the old Multnomah Building. By the time my dad moved his office to the new building I was busy with my first year of college and any nostalgic desire to visit the old hotel one more time was crowded out with my job at a local restaurant, my studies and my on and off again romance with my boyfriend. I did visit my dad’s new building a few times before he retired in 1998. One particular visit was right around the holidays. My husband and I took our two-year-old daughter downtown to enjoy the Christmas decorations and to do some shopping. As we entered the new building, I noticed that he lobby was beautifully designed but it did not compare in any way to the lobby of the Multnomah. The large brass double doors opened to a marble entryway with a reception desk directly in any visitor’s path to the offices and elevators. After the tragic bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, a uniformed guard was added to the landscape of the lobby. My dad, having achieved a seniority status in the company, received a beautiful corner office on the 10th floor of the high-rise building. His large windows offered a breathtaking view of the Willamette River and the downtown landscape. Most would argue that the modern building was a marked improvement from the aging Multnomah building, but as I stood in his office with my daughter, I felt a pang of regret that she would never see rose covered horses pass by his windows.
After the government offices vacated the Multnomah Hotel for their new and more modern facilities, the hotel’s future was questionable. What would become of this Portland landmark? After four years of remaining empty, two local businessmen with a reputation for highly esthetic projects examined the possibility of reopening the building as a hotel. After studying the history of the hotel they were convinced that they could restore this wonderful Portland landmark to its original beauty. The partners studied existing hotel chains to find the perfect company to renew the Multnomah as a working hotel committed to high quality service and community involvement just as the original owner had intended nearly 85 years earlier.
The grand opening of the Embassy Suites Downtown at the Multnomah Hotel was held November 15, 1997. Millions of dollars had been spent to make over the drab office space into luxurious living suites. Gone are the volcano and soil erosion posters on the walls. They have been replaced by emerald green and cream stripped wallpaper with a floral border of white and pink roses. Near the renovated elevators a cherry wood table with a brass container of colorful silk flowers stares at its reflection in a brass edged mirror. The corridors are no longer lighted by florescent lights but by frosted antique looking wall sconces and subtle recessed lighting in the ceiling. The lobby, no longer empty, has been restored to an elegance and beauty that I can imagine greeted the first visitors to the hotel in 1912. Once again there is a grand ballroom and one of the first events held at the hotel in 1997 was the Christmas party for the employees of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Embassy Suites staff was more than hospitable to these former inhabitants of the building. My mom and dad returned from the holiday evening with stories of how the hotel staff graciously took the party guests to the spots where their old offices were and showed them the elegant suites that had been put in their places. Most amazing to my dad was the transformation of the old underground parking area to a swimming pool and health center. Their stories made me want to visit the grand hotel for myself to see my old friend in her new form.
In December 1999, the year of my 10th wedding anniversary, my husband surprised me with an overnight stay at the hotel. Walking through the doors into the lobby was like walking into one of my childhood fantasies. It was a week before Christmas and the lobby was washed in a golden light and dressed in its holiday finery. A tall, narrow noble fir Christmas tree stood in the center of the lobby, its silvery branches stretching up to the creamy white gilt ceiling. The tree was covered in gold ribbons, burgundy bows and glittery golden balls. Music from a string quartet playing in the lobby seemed to physically wrap itself around me and move me from the doors to the soft, plush, burgundy sofa in front of the tree. I sat for a few minutes while my husband checked us in at the desk. I looked at the familiar marble pillars and smiled as I thought to myself that they seemed brighter and steadier in the golden light of the lobby. It was a magical moment in time and space as I enjoyed the familiar surroundings in a new way. Not only would I have my precious memories of this old hotel, a landmark in my life, but I now knew it would be around to create new ones with my husband and with my children. As we walked to the elevator to drop of our bags in our room, a silly grin crept onto my face. “What are you smiling at?” My husband asked. Squeezing his hand, I replied, “Thank you so much for this wonderful gift.” The elevator doors closed and I didn’t feel the need to hold my breath.